There was a moment in the third quarter on Sunday that, for Jimmy Garoppolo, kind of signified where he is now—in his eighth NFL season and fifth playing for Kyle Shanahan.
The significance of the play itself really wasn’t much. It came on a second-and-9 with 3:40 on the clock and the 49ers up 38–17. The call was a drift route concept off play-action, and Garoppolo hit Deebo Samuel, his best receiver on this afternoon, for 16 yards and a first down. And sure, it moved the Niners out of the depths of their own territory, and to the Lions’ 37. Still, they wound up punting four snaps later.
But to focus on just that would be missing the point of what Garoppolo was trying to distill for me during our conversation as he and his teammates made toward the buses for the long flight back to the West Coast. This was more about feel, command and everything a quarterback is looking to become within an offensive scheme.
“I don’t know if you know what a drift is; it’s like a slant route, kinda, with Deebo from the slot,” Garoppolo explained. “And [Lions linebacker] Jamie Collins is on him, and he was guarding him but pushing through at the same time to get outside of him. And it just all happened so slow. And I don’t know, in the past, I think I would’ve hesitated, but today I just ripped it. We got a big play out of it.
“It’s just plays like that that kind of go unnoticed. But as a quarterback, you notice them.”
Indeed, if you look back at the play, you can see it: Collins played Samuel outside, turned his back to the ball, and before Samuel made his break, the ball was out and spinning fast to the left of the linebacker, eventually landing right in Samuel’s hands as he cleared Collins in the coverage.
Forget the result of the play. This sort of thing, to a quarterback, can always be read as a sign that the coaches’ offense is becoming his offense.
And yet, just three snaps later, third pick Trey Lance was back in the lineup as the team’s short-yardage quarterback to try to convert a third-and-1, which was another reminder that even as the offense has become more and more Garoppolo’s as he enters his fifth year as a Niner, it will, sooner or later, be someone else. Namely, it’ll be Lance’s.
Now, the good news for San Francisco: The Niners held off a feisty Lions team on the road on Sunday, scoring a 41–33 win, after leading 38–10 at one point, to open their season 1–0. The unorthodox quarterback plan worked, too, as the Niners averaged an NFC-best 8.0 yards per play. San Francisco rushed for 131 yards. Garoppolo posted a 124.2 passer rating. Lance threw a touchdown pass. The defense survived an injury to star corner Jason Verrett.
But underneath all that is how we got here in the first place. And why it’s taken, and will continue to take, the right kinds of people to make it work.
We’re 15 games in! Lots to get to in this week’s MMQB column. Here’s what you’ve got to look forward to …
• A look at where Joe Burrow and his Bengals are.
• An explanation of how Kyler Murray’s playing style is driving the Cardinals.
• David Culley—a surprise star of Week 1.
But we’re starting with the 49ers and their fascinating quarterback situation.
About a month ago, I was in San Francisco and talked to Shanahan, Garoppolo and Lance about what the season might hold, how Shanahan was holding a competition (of sorts) and the possibility that, in the end, both guys might wind up having a role in the offense. And much of that came together in the Niners’ preseason finale against the Raiders, with the coaches’ rolling out a true quarterback shuttle, with Lance and Garoppolo’s going on and off the field the way a nickel corner might come on situationally to relieve a third linebacker.
What we saw Sunday against the Lions was not that.
Garoppolo lost a botched snap on the Niners’ first offensive play of the season. On the team’s second possession, a seven-play, 59-yard touchdown drive, Lance came on twice—first for a one-yard run on first-and-10 from the Detroit 16, then to throw a touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield on first-and-goal from the Lions’ 5.
The results there had plenty of people, the Lions staff included, thinking America was about to see a whole lot more of Lance. But the rookie took only a couple more snaps from there, logging two carries for a single yard the rest of the day, without throwing another pass.
The reason? Well, one certainly could be that the Niners didn’t really need Lance on this afternoon, because Garoppolo, as the above throw to Samuel illustrated, threw it really, really well. He started the game on a heater, connecting on his first seven throws for 104 yards, and was steady throughout—finishing with his eighth passer rating above 120 (124.2) in those five years in San Francisco and his highest yardage total (314) since Dec. 8 of the Niners’ 2019 Super Bowl season.
“Kyle was on fire with the play-calling,” Garoppolo said. “He really was in a zone.”
And as Shanahan got into a zone, Garoppolo found himself joining the coach there.
“There were a couple [throws] where it’s just, I don’t know, you’re seeing the defense, it’s slower to you,” he continued. “You’re not trying to process the play so much as before. The play-calling, and just getting the play running this offense, is as complicated as I’ve been around. So that part, once you get past that, you can start playing football again. And that’s kinda where I’m at now. Just seeing the defense better. Things are slowing down for me.
“It felt slower out there today, and that’s always a good thing.”
Which, of course, could also be the frustrating thing, if Garoppolo allowed it to be.
He was traded to San Francisco around Halloween 2017, sat for a couple of weeks, then lit the world on fire over the last six games of that season, Shanahan’s first as the Niners’ coach. The next year, with expectations sky high, he blew out his ACL in Week 3. The year after that was the Super Bowl year. And then last year was another marred by injury for the Niners, with one of those being to Garoppolo himself.
Then came the trade in March, at which point Garoppolo could be excused for glancing over at the exits. For a while, the truth is, his radar was up for that.
But over time, he’s come to peace with his place in San Francisco, temporary as it might be, and has done his best to embrace the situation with a team he believes can compete for a championship. That took, over the summer, some talks with the coaches, and Shanahan in particular, on how the rotation between him and Lance might work. And that was right around when I was there, and talked to both quarterbacks about it, with each tepid on the idea.
“I mean, the concern was just as a quarterback, you’re used to being the guy,” Garoppolo said Sunday. “It’s a little bit of where you don’t want to be a distraction to everyone else, at least that was my thought, just with having two of us like that. It’s one of those things, like I said, where you’re checking your ego at the door and just playing ball at the end of the day.”
Which isn’t to say Garoppolo didn’t have his feelings on some of the ideas that had floated around—or didn’t think there was a point of diminishing returns.
“If it was series by series, which I think when we were talking, that was kinda what the thought was, that really would’ve been more the rhythm thing,” he said. “Because that was in the discussions for a little bit and I was like, ‘You know, I don’t know how that’s gonna work, just being out for that long and not throwing.’ Switching off like how we’re doing it, it’s different. The rhythm thing doesn’t matter as much—one or two plays isn’t too bad.”
The Shanahan plan that manifested Sunday didn’t put either guy in that spot.
The aforementioned two snaps happened in a red-zone situation. Lance came in again on a third-and-20 from the Lions’ 36, a spot where the Niners just wanted to get closer to put Robbie Gould in better position for a field goal. (Lance ran for two yards on that play, and Gould missed a 54-yard kick.) And Lance’s final snap came on a third-and-1 at the end of the third quarter. The Lions stuffed him for a one-yard loss, forcing a punt.
And that was pretty much that. The rest of the afternoon became about protecting a lead and maybe getting a wakeup call in watching it slip away—“There was a bit of relaxation, I guess you could say, on the sideline,” Garoppolo said. “I hate to even say that, but we learned a valuable lesson. Some guys got taken out a little too early, guys started to relax, and in this league you can never relax. So it was a weird finish.”
But when that finish came, Garoppolo could honestly say that there really weren’t any surprises. He knew Lance would play, and how much would ride on situations, and that’s exactly how it played out.
“Throughout the week, you try to plan as well as you can,” he said. “But just situationally, you never know what Kyle’s feeling or what he’s gonna call, what he was setting up on the prior play. I think just throughout the week, you kinda get a feel for it. Short yardage, things like that, you kinda have a good idea of what’s gonna happen. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things that you gotta check your ego at the door, really.
“That’s what it really comes down to. And it’s tough as a quarterback but it is what it is.”
On this day, what it is was a win and a banner performance from a quarterback still a couple of months short of his 30th birthday.
Does he wish that this was his turning the corner and getting ready to take the next step as the Niners’ long-term quarterback? Of course. Would this work if he and Lance weren’t getting along as well as they have? Probably not. (“If he would have came in and kinda been an entitled rookie, it would’ve been a little different,” Garoppolo said of Lance. “But honestly, he’s been cool from the get-go.”) And is it tough that Garoppolo doesn’t know where he’ll be playing next year? He didn’t say so, but you’d think it’d have to be.
That’s why, for now, Garoppolo’s dealing, like he said, with what is, rather than what might’ve been—and what is in San Francisco, as he sees it, is a veteran quarterback at the top of his game, leading a team that’s got reasonable Super Bowl aspirations. And if that veteran quarterback plays well, then he should be fine.
“It was a weird offseason as a whole,” he said. “But I think it was more that I kinda saw the writing on the wall. I’m one of those guys, whatever it takes for the team to win, I really am about it. It’s one of those things where you gotta swallow your pride a little bit as a quarterback. You’re not used to that type of thing. But at the end of the day, whatever it takes to get the win, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
And in Week 1, Garoppolo did plenty for the Niners in that regard.
BURROW’S BENGALS ARE GROWING
If anyone wanted to know whether Joe Burrow was going to be timid in his first game back from his ACL reconstruction, or whether the Bengals would be timid on his behalf, they got their answer with less than a minute left in overtime Sunday and Cincinnati in fourth-and-1 from its own 48.
The safe call there would’ve been to punt and settle for a tie with the Vikings. Instead, Zac Taylor went for broke, and Burrow, in the process, doubled down on his coach’s bet on him by taking the whole thing into his own hands.
“The defense put a guy over the center and then two guys in the A-gaps,” Burrow explained from the locker room after the game. “So I knew it was gonna be tough to run the ball against that look. And so we had the other play—we went to the line with two plays and that was the second play. So I went ahead and changed it to the play where I hit C.J. [Uzomah]. And there he's really my third read, and I don't think we've thrown that to him in two years.
“But credit to him for being ready for that ball.”
Indeed, with everything on the line, Burrow feathered the ball over Uzomah’s shoulder for a 32-yard gain to get to the Vikings’ 20 with 31 seconds left. Two snaps later, rookie Evan McPherson came on to drill a 33-yard game-winner and get Cincy to 1–0 with a 27–24 win.
So after all that, I asked Burrow—knowing he felt like he was really rolling before he went down last November—whether he’d have felt confident enough at the end of last year to change the play in a crucial spot like he did in this one. It didn’t surprise me much that he answered, yes, he’d have been totally O.K. doing that a year ago. But from there, he took our discussion to an interesting place.
“I think I would've been able to make that play last year—I don't know if we would've pulled that game out as a team last year, though,” he said. “I think as a team, we just have individuals that have really put the work in and understand what we're trying to do and are really resilient. The defense really stepped up today. [The Vikings] were in position to win the game, and then we knew we had to get a turnover.
“Germaine Pratt took the ball away from Dalvin Cook, and the rest is history. It's a really team game that we won today.”
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Of course, Burrow’s right. Without Pratt’s play, which took possession from the Vikings inside the Bengals’ 40 with two minutes left in OT, the quarterback and his sparingly used tight end wouldn’t have been in position to make theirs moments later.
But the larger point Burrow was making was just as poignant here. The Bengals haven’t been to the playoffs in six years, and fewer and fewer players still on the roster were there for that—Uzomah’s one of just four left. So in many ways, the team, over the last few years, has had to learn to win in the NFL. And that means winning games like the one it played Sunday, where things came unraveled very, very quickly.
The Bengals had a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter and were up by 10 well into the fourth quarter, and let those leads slip away.
“We gave up the lead, and last year I think we would've crumbled,” Burrow said. “We started to. We started to crumble, and then guys really stepped up and made plays when we needed them to. That’s winning in the NFL, and that's what we're learning to do. I love the Bengals, but they haven't been super successful the last five years. So there’s a lot of guys here that have been here during that time that are just now learning how to win.”
The difference, as Burrow sees it, is visible in how the Bengals strategically plucked free agents from consistent playoff programs the last two years—Trey Hendrickson and Vonn Bell from the Saints, Trae Waynes and Riley Reiff from the Vikings, Mike Hilton from the Steelers, Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys and Mike Daniels from the Packers. And then, in how those guys affected what the summer was like.
That, really, laid the groundwork for a team ready to take body blows in Week 1 and keep swinging through them, because, in camp, the pressure on everyone was ratcheted up.
“Everyone was communicating with more intensity on the field,” Burrow said. “As an offense, when you’re going up against a defense who’s yelling out calls, it really gives the impression that they know what they’re doing and they’re confident in their scheme and that they're gonna play fast. And that’s what I saw out of the defense all camp.”
So that defense wound up forcing a fumble to stem the tide pushing against the Bengals in overtime, and then the offense that dealt with that defense for six weeks responded in kind.
The hope now is that it carries over to next week.
And by the way, that we haven’t gotten to Burrow’s knee yet is a pretty good sign of how he feels about it. He had the well-documented rough patch in camp, with guys’ flying around him for the first time, but it really was what he needed. And since then he’s been fine, and that includes how he felt out there Sunday in his first real live action since the surgery.
“It felt good from the jump,” he said. “We didn’t play great as an offense the first couple series, and then we started opening it up and throwing the ball a lot and right before half, we got it rolling. And then we scored coming out of halftime. I thought we were gonna get it really rolling, and then we went for it on fourth down, didn’t get it and that kinda switched the momentum over to them. But as far as me, I felt great the whole game.”
Which is probably the best news of all for the Bengals.
The Texans, for the first time in a while, were a really nice story Sunday. It’s hard for me to explain how easy it was for me to hear the emotion in David Culley’s voice after his team bludgeoned the Jaguars 37–21. But trust me, it felt like I was in the room with him as he celebrated his first win in charge. “Here's the one thing about the win: We expected to win the game today,” Culley said. “And we knew that if we went in and played the way we had been practicing, the way we wanted to do things, we knew we'd have a chance to do it. And we were very fortunate today to go out and play good football and have a chance to win a football game. And I am elated. It feels good. It feels good.”
As Culley saw it, the consistency from his team kept improving day over day, and his players were correcting mistakes as they went along, and, as he said, if those elements carried over into the game, he figured his guys would be fine. They did, and they were (more than fine, actually). And part of Culley’s trust that it would carry over into the game was in trusting the kinds of guys he and GM Nick Caserio had worked to acquire over the last six months, and what they were trying to avoid. “When Nick Caserio put this roster together, we sat down we talked about the kind of people that we wanted; we knew we weren't gonna have those kind of people,” Culley said. “We were gonna have people with high character. We were gonna bring in people that were very selfless—very selfless. And then we knew that anybody that was gonna be anything other than high-character and a selfless individual, weren't gonna fit here with what we were trying to do. And we've been very fortunate that we got those kind of guys.” Among those are Tyrod Taylor (21-for-33, 291 yards, 2 TDs), Mark Ingram (26 carries, 85 yards, TD), and some holdovers like Brandin Cooks (five catches, 132 yards).
Now, does that mean the Texans are suddenly contending for a championship? It does not. But at the very least, a foundation’s being poured. And the reality is that doing it that way has helped the team compartmentalize the elephant-in-the-room situation that is a franchise quarterback’s making eight figures to stay away. “Nick and I, and our staff, sat down and we decided—this is how we’re gonna approach things,” Culley said. “Deshaun [Watson] did a heck of a job of being able to work with us and how we wanted to handle this particular situation. And basically, this worked out really good for both of us from the standpoint of this is how we gotta deal with it, this is the situation and I think it was both of us working together, our team and him working together; it hasn't been a distraction. He hasn't been a distraction. And basically, every day we come to practice it's always about the Houston Texans, not about anything else. He's helped us do that.” And clearly, for Culley, to get his team that sort of positive reinforcement on Sunday was no small thing.
Kyler Murray’s a magic man. He made two plays on Sunday in the Cardinals’ 38–13 win over the Titans that were absolutely jaw-dropping. This first one’s just silly …
And before this one, I didn’t really know the fallaway shot was a football move …
So after that, and Murray’s 289-yard, four-touchdown showing, I got a chance to catch up with Christian Kirk—who’s not only played three years with the quarterback in Arizona, but also was with him at Texas A&M—and ask him about what it’s like to be on the other end of one of these (he made the touchdown catch on the second one). “Obviously, his ability to keep the play alive is the aspect where, like you said, the play is never dead,” Kirk said. “That’s one thing you have to focus on. But I think the main thing with having him back there at quarterback is there's never a route in a concept where you’re not viable to get the ball. Some schemes, the route's either a clear out-route or you’re running it to get another guy open. But with him back there, he’ll throw any route on the field. If it’s open, he’s gonna find it; he’s gonna throw it. So just knowing that every play when you line up, the ball could be coming your way.”
Which, Kirk says, has a way of creating increased field awareness among everyone on the field. “Certain plays are installed that we practice throughout the week,” Kirk continued, “and the ball usually either goes to one or two spots. But we all know, and we say it in the meetings, Hey, we know that he's been throwing it here and here all week, but when we get in there on Sunday, we're all live. We all have to be making sure that we're getting open and winning our battles because the ball can come to you.’ ” And the results of that came to life Sunday, with four guys’ notching four or more catches in the win. Suddenly, it sure feels like Arizona’s becoming a must-watch team, with a must-watch quarterback at the helm.
Jameis Winston said at his postgame presser that his trainer texted him a simple message Sunday morning: “Pressure is for the unprepared.” Based on his own experience, I think he can confirm that pressure is also for the young quarterback who’s instantly expected to carry his team. Six years ago, Winston landed on a team, in Tampa Bay, that could conservatively be called a work in progress. And in five years, he had three head coaches, three play-callers and zero playoff appearances. Bottom line, if the Buccaneers were going to get to the next level, they needed a quarterback to take them there—and one did, obviously, last year. Conversely, the Saints showed, in an emphatic way, against a team that was in the NFC title game the last two years, that they don’t need to be carried by anyone, in spanking the Packers 38–3. Tailbacks Alvin Kamara and Tony Jones Jr. combined for 133 yards on 31 carries, and the team rushed for 171 yards total behind its veteran line, which led to long touchdown drives in the first half that bled 7:51 and 10:00 off the clock, and kept Aaron Rodgers from getting any level of rhythm. When Rodgers was on the field, Dennis Allen’s defense got consistent pressure, largely behind a resurgent Marcus Davenport, and that was in part a product of the coverage of all-world corner Marshon Lattimore and his emerging rookie bookend Paulson Adebo (his story’s an interesting one that encapsulates the 2021 draft experience, so I’ll plan on having an item on him in the MAQB later Monday). And that left Winston to just, simply, go out and play his position. “Drew [Brees] talks about that all the time—it's about the process, the process of the entire game, four quarters, is about how can you accumulate the most right decision,” Winston told me. “Because sometimes the right decision is throwing the ball away, or taking a sack or scrambling for a first down. It might not be trying to force that ball in. It's getting away from being result-oriented, which is me wanting to show out and give us numbers and get the win, into decision-oriented. Because over time, those decisions add up.”
So you wanna know how Winston wound up throwing for 148 yards and five touchdowns—an all-time yardage low for a quarterback with that many TD passes? It happened because Winston, maybe for the first time in his career, could go out there and just be a cog in the machine. And in turn, with Michael Thomas out and Emmanuel Sanders gone, young guys like Juwan Johnson (a tight end who played receiver in college), Adam Trautman (a former FCS tight end) and Deonte Harris (a former Division II receiver) emerged as beneficiaries of Winston’s progress. Now, Winston has to keep it going. But at least he knows in his effort to do that, he won’t be going it alone. “I'm grateful to be with this team,” he said. “I think anyone can see that this is a better team than I'd ever been with, so that brings comfort to any quarterback.” (We’ll have more on Winston in the MAQB, too.)
That was a heck of a start for Matthew Stafford. This, in case you missed it, is how Stafford’s second throw as a Ram went.
And honestly, the 67-yard touchdown closely mirrored a throw I saw Stafford make at the Rams’ joint practices with the Cowboys—only on that one it was DeSean Jackson, rather than Van Jefferson, on the receiving end, and it almost looked like Stafford left his feet to make the throw back in August. But both the camp throw and the throw Sunday night are examples of what Sean McVay was looking for to take his offense to another level. Where the Rams were lacking the last few years was in that they couldn’t attack all three levels of the defense the way the Shanahan-styled offense is designed to. That, of course, didn’t make the offense impotent. But it did lower the ceiling. And this particular throw, with Stafford’s rolling left and throwing deep right, is a perfect example of what McVay wanted (and really what Shanahan himself sought in San Francisco)—a quarterback who would force the defense to defend every blade of grass on the field. A 56-yard bomb to Cooper Kupp later on was less of an example of it (a lot of NFL quarterbacks could’ve hit the wide-open Kupp on that one), but still reflects the need, in McVay’s mind, for more explosive plays in the offense. Oh, and by the way—Rams-Bucs in two weeks. And remember, the Rams won last year’s game between the two, 27–24, a couple of weeks before Tampa Bay went on its tear that ended with a rowdy boat parade. Should be fun.
At some point, everyone needs to give Mike Tomlin the credit he deserves. To me, the sign of a great head coach is an ability to win with different kinds of teams, and, man, has Tomlin done that over a decade and a half. His early teams had the dominant defenses of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and James Farrior, and a hard-nosed offense. Then, there were years—with Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell as stars—when the Steelers had to outscore everyone. And now it’s swung back around with the rookies at tailback, tight end, left tackle and center, and cornerstones Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey gone, and a defense led by T.J. Watt and Minkah Fizpatrick still ascending. So the formula that the Steelers rode to a 23–16 upset of the Bills should surprise no one. The defense bought the offense time to get its footing by holding an explosive Bills offense to 10 points in the first half (with a T.J. Watt strip-sack highlighting the effort), and then the offense slowed the game down with long drives in the third quarter. And after that, the defense took over, with fourth-down stops on consecutive possessions leading to a field goal, then the go-ahead touchdown, which preceded a blocked punt that set the stage for the Steelers to put the game away. Afterward, Tomlin said, “We just played Steeler D. I’ve got an expectation that our defensive unit is going to be in every football game like that. I’m just being blatantly honest with you.” And he is—he knows this is how his 2021 team is going to win. An old boxing axiom holds that styles makes fights, and that, really, is what that comment signals to me. Tomlin, as he usually does, knows what style of fight his team needs to be in. The Bills, fresh off an AFC title game appearance, were the victims of that Sunday.
The Chargers are really encouraged by what Justin Herbert gave them Sunday, and mostly because they know how much better it could’ve been. And I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This is a 23-year-old in his first game in a brand-new offense, with five offensive linemen in front who’d never played together before (four of the five are new to the team), in a 10 a.m. body clock game on the other side of the country. So, yeah, despite that ...
• Herbert threw for 337 yards and a touchdown on 31-of-47 passing (85.2 rating), and that’s even with, depending on your perspective, six or seven drops.
• Look at the number of attempts again: 47. That’s the fifth-most of his career, and if you throw in two sacks, he dropped back 49 times. Against probably the league’s most gifted defensive line, on the road, and with, again, a nearly completely new line.
• He came back off his lone interception of the afternoon with a touchdown pass. And then he did maybe his best work.
• The Chargers got the ball for the last time, up 20–16 with 6:43 left. How were they able to bleed the rest of the clock out? Herbert was nails on third down, going 4-for-4 for 65 yards in converting four on the game’s last possession. The last one, a nine-yard connection with Keenan Allen to turn third-and-4 into first-and-10 with 1:44 left, led to three kneel-downs.
And so, yeah, the Chargers are good with where Herbert’s at kicking off Year 2. The Cowboys are up next for the Chargers in their first home game in front of fans at SoFi next Sunday.
So far, so good for Russell Wilson’s restart in Seattle. Outside of a voice in the organization, the 32-year-old, eight-time Pro Bowler was really asking for two football things this offseason: a system that works for him and pieces for the offensive line. On the latter, in a convincing 28–16 win in Indianapolis (that was 28–10 going into the game’s final minutes), the Seahawks rolled out a pair of new guards, in veteran Gabe Jackson and second-year player Damien Lewis, and those two helped pave the way to 140 yards rushing on 27 carries (5.2-yard average), and give Wilson time in a surgical performance. On the former? Well, Wilson looked comfortable, and that’s a credit to his own commitment even when things were out of whack between he and the team. I’m told that even through the early parts of the offseason, and the offseason program, Wilson was drilling down on learning the ins and outs of the system new OC Shane Waldron was bringing in from the Rams. And the way that system marries its run game to its pass game was a huge part of why Wilson was enthusiastic about its implementation—it would use Wilson’s threat as a runner to open up things in the pass game even more than we’ve seen in the past. What’s interesting? None of the four touchdown passes Wilson threw were actually out of play-action, but each was down the field against a defense that had to be concerned not just with Wilson’s ability to scoot but a reenergized Chris Carson, too. The touchdown to DK Metcalf was out of a similar formation they’d just run out of. The long one to Tyler Lockett was Wilson’s reacting to a blitz. And in between those big plays, on snaps when there was play-action, the quarterback took what the play brought him. All in all, I think this is going to be a really interesting offense with Waldron—who was among Sean McVay’s most trusted confidants—at the controls.
I think it’s hard to believe that the Dolphins would feel better about Tua Tagovailoa than the Patriots do about Mac Jones this morning. And I say that with a whole lot of respect for the job that Brian Flores has done. He’s now 3–2 against his mentor, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and Miami’s 17–16 win over New England was his second in Foxboro. His team was tough and disciplined, and won the game despite being outgained 393 to 259, in large part because Xavien Howard was able rip the ball away from Patriots bell cow Damien Harris inside the Dolphins’ 10 to preserve the one-point lead with 3:31 left; and because the offense was able to churn out a couple of first downs after that to ensure Jones and the Patriots wouldn’t get the ball back. And by looks of how Jones came on late, it’s a good thing for the Dolphins they didn’t. You could see the confidence Jones was gaining, and the coaches were putting in him. On a third-and-6 with 6:51 to go, Jones stared down a blitz and delivered the ball through a forest of D-linemen to Jakobi Meyers for seven yards and a first down. Five snaps later, Belichick and Josh McDaniels wheeled Jones out there in an empty look—making him personally responsible for extra rushers—and Jones took the snap and quickly dealt it to Jonnu Smith for 11 yards to set up first-and-10 from the Dolphin 11 with 3:35 to go. Harris’s fumble came on the next play, but I’d say the Patriots, even in a loss, saw a lot of what they wanted to see from their rookie QB. As for the Dolphins and Tagovailoa? Well, here’s what Patriots DB J.C. Jackson said, in response to a question on Tagovailoa’s pick (running from Matthew Judon, he tried to throw the ball away, and it ended up in Jonathan Jones’s hands near the boundary instead): “That’s what he does. If he doesn’t have his first read, he just is going to throw the ball up and that’s when we capitalize on defense when he makes mistakes like that.” Harsh comment? Maybe. But it also matches up with the reputation Tagovailoa had coming out of Alabama—where Jones thrived on his depth of knowledge of the game, Tagovailoa played more off instinct, accuracy and overall twitchiness. The hard truth here is that Tua looked explosive and played fast at Bama, and that hasn’t translated to the pros. There’s still time, of course. But it was at least a tad alarming that Tagovailoa’s old college backup, now an NFL rookie, looked better in a regular-season setting.
We’ve said it before, but it’s even more clear now: The advantage Tom Brady gave the Patriots for 20 years basically came with him in the U-Haul to Tampa. We’ve seen it in how the Buccaneers have gotten veterans to take compromises to stay. We’ve seen it in how the Buccaneers were able to take the first two months of last year to, more or less, figure stuff out. We’ve seen it in how Brady’s teammates have adopted his training methods and how intense their camp practices were this summer. And to me, it showed up again Thursday night. In fact, the game against the Cowboys reminded me of Brady’s first game back from an ACL injury 12 years ago, on a Monday night against Buffalo. The Patriots were up and down in that one, and fell behind 24–13 with 5:32 left. But the Bills left the door ajar late, with a fumbled kickoff, and Brady kicked right through it, throwing two touchdown passes in a span of 66 seconds to erase everything that had gone wrong. Likewise, the other night, Chris Godwin dropped what would’ve been a separation-creating touchdown with 12 minutes left, then fumbled with five minutes left inside the 5, with the Bucs looking to put the Cowboys away. And sure enough, the Cowboys gave Brady the window they couldn’t afford to—kicking a field goal, rather than scoring a touchdown, and leaving (thanks to a debilitating holding call) 1:29 on the clock. Brady promptly connected on five of his next seven throws for 62 yards, the last of which was a timing route to, yes, Godwin for 24 yards, on which it looked like Brady let the ball go about eight yards before Godwin made his break. Which is basically to say that throw was borderline indefensible, and Dallas was dead in the water to begin with. A Ryan Succop chip shot later, the Bucs are 1–0. And they go forward with the knowledge that, as Brady pushes them toward perfection, they can still win when they fall pretty far short of that.
I have a lot more thoughts on Week 1 than just those. So here are 10 more.
• You have to be close to perfect to beat the Chiefs—because K.C. plays with a margin for error that the rest of the league doesn’t have, because the rest of the league doesn’t have Patrick Mahomes. So, sure, the Browns looked good most of the afternoon at Arrowhead. But you could just feel how that botched punt was going to haunt them as it happened. And as it turns out, it did haunt them.
• Others might count out Washington now that Ryan Fitzpatrick’s down. Or speculate on Cam Newton’s landing there. I’m here to tell you that staff believes in Taylor Heinicke—whose history with Washington OC Scott Turner goes all the way back to Turner’s scouting him out of Old Dominion, then getting the Vikings to sign him as a college free agent in 2015. He was good last year. He was good in the summer. Is he going to become a 10-year starter in Washington? No. But he’ll be fine in the short term.
• I’m with those who believe good teams are built through the lines, and I’m here to tell you Matt Rhule’s Panthers are making real headway on the defensive side of that coin. Carolina sacked rookie Zach Wilson six times and held the Jets to 45 yards rushing. And it was behind thoroughbreds like Derrick Brown, Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos and Haason Reddick that it happened.
• Ditto for the Eagles, only on both sides of the ball. Jalen Hurts (27-for-35, 264 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 126.4) was outstanding. But for Philly, the lines were really where the game was won. The Falcons couldn’t handle the Eagles’ rush, nor could Atlanta create much disruption of its own with its defensive front, and that’s mainly about dudes like Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Jordan Mailata, Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks.
• While we’re there, losing Mekhi Becton’s a killer for the Jets. The left tackle got a lot of attention for his struggles during camp—and truth be told, he should’ve shown up in better shape—but New York really needed him. Sunday’s sack total shows it. And what really sucks is it undermines how Jets GM Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh worked to methodically build out infrastructure around Wilson, so as to put less on him in Year 1.
• It’s worth mentioning T.J. Watt’s sack again, since the dude really started practicing for real this week, and was still ready to go. Like I said last week, I don’t think he’s the guy that the Steelers are going to regret paying.
• That said, you also saw on Sunday the importance of Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers’ defense, and it’s fair to assume he’d want the Steelers to break the same precedents for him in a contract that they did for Watt. Watt became the first player in franchise history to get money fully guaranteed in future years (which requires the team’s putting some of that money in escrow). And he got it not just through the second year of his deal, but through the third year as well. Pittsburgh can be expected to negotiate with Fitzpatrick next offseason.
• Against the Cardinals, Titans RB Derrick Henry ran the ball 17 times for 58 yards, which is the third-lowest total he’s had over the last two years. Tennessee LT Taylor Lewan, coming back off an ACL injury, got undressed by Chandler Jones. And Ryan Tannehill wasn’t himself either. I’m gonna chalk it up as just a rough day for the Titans. But given the workload Henry’s shouldered, and some moving parts in front of him, it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s been the well-established identity there over Mike Vrabel’s (very successful) first three years.
• I wouldn’t panic over the egg Aaron Rodgers laid in Jacksonville on Sunday. But 1-for-10 on third down is pretty bad.
• How Urban Meyer and his team respond to a resounding Week 1 loss will be interesting. Meyer conceded to me last month that he has thought plenty about the fact that he took even a single loss really hard as a college coach (he lost just nine games total in seven years at Ohio State, and was 187–32 overall as a college coach), and that he’d have to adjust in a league where a five-loss season would put you near the top of the standings. Well, the time for that adjustment is now.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Seeing my alma mater lose its first regular-season game in three years wasn’t fun. But I will say this: Penei Sewell’s little brother, Noah, an Oregon sophomore linebacker, is a monster. It’d be tough for him, based on positional value, to become what his brother was as a prospect. But he definitely has an NFL future.
2) We’ve been raising Iowa State coach Matt Campbell’s name for going on three years in this space, and the Cyclones’ loss to Iowa on Saturday certainly makes you wonder whether this is the year he’ll have to jump—either to the NFL (where he should have opportunities) or a bigger college program. It’s fair to ask whether ISU has reached its ceiling, and the reshuffling of the Big 12 certainly won’t help Campbell and his staff recruit to Ames.
3) Florida sophomore QB Anthony Richardson’s stat line—3-for-3 for 152 yards and two touchdowns in the air, with another 115 yards and a touchdown on three carries—caught my attention, and it caught attention of some NFL people I know, too. He’s 6' 4", 235 pounds, and Dan Mullen’s got a pretty lengthy track record of working with NFL draft picks at the position (Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Kyle Trask). The Gators play Alabama this week. It’ll be interesting to see whether Mullen gets Richardson some work, after already getting it out there that Emory Jones will remain the starter.
4) The move of Houston (along with BYU, Cincinnati and UCF) to the Big 12 is fascinating. The Cougars could legit turn into a top-20 program with just kids within a half hour of campus. The question now’s going to be whether those kids still see the Big 12 as a major conference.
5) Florida State’s fall from grace remains mind-blowing to me. Because of the school’s geography, I have a hard time sorting it in the Nebraska/Tennessee will-it-ever-be-what-it-used-to-be category. But that was a bad, bad loss Saturday.
6) If you haven’t seen the Miami hanging cat thing, look into it now. Might wind up being the highlight of the Hurricanes’ season.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Just an absolute monster.
But Goff and the Lions actually fought their tails off!!!
Cool moment for McPherson, for sure.
I actually really like these. Really cool way for guys to connect to where they’re from on a very big stage.
Can’t be too careful, Kalyn.
Everyone in the NFL’s at least a little petty (and I’d know because I can be too).
What I respect about how the Saints have handled this is that they’ve actively tried to make sure none of the more serious stuff becomes about them, because they know it shouldn’t be.
I don’t know if Culley will be a great head coach. Maybe he will be. What I know is he’s not a hard guy to root for—and the qualities that make him that way also make him the right guy to get the Texans through a weird time.
Come for an obscene catch, stay for McLaurin’s position coach from Ohio State, ex-Dolphin Brian Hartline, breaking the whole thing down.
Nick has spoken.
It looked to me like Za’Darius Smith actively tried to do everything by the book (and, according to the refs, somehow failed).
The reel of Chandler Jones’s five sacks actually does kind of look like a Bobby Boucher highlight tape.
I’ve linked to our MMQB editor Mitch’s octopus tweets before, and now there’s a bot. I have no idea how something like this works.
Kevin doesn’t swing and miss.
This is why these are …
… sometimes unfair.
Looked kinda … confident Sunday?
I can’t rule it out, either.
Saleh’s story is a good one.
Yes, it is.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Raiders-Ravens, we talked to new Raider Gerald McCoy, a 33-year-old six-time Pro Bowler.
MMQB: So at 33, with money in the bank and a lot accomplished, what keeps you going?
Gerald McCoy: Well, when we come into this league, we get drafted for one reason, and that’s to help the team win a championship. Within that, in order to be the player the team expects you to be, or to be at your best, it’s up to you. And the only way to play this game as long as I’ve played it is to love it. You gotta push yourself past the limits of what you think you can do, or thought you could do. You gotta really strain, and train and push your body to different limits. But in order to do something like that, you gotta love something. So where I’m at in my career, the reason I’m still going is because I love this game. And I feel like I’ve got a lot to give this game. And I’m just not done with it. I love to play. I love the locker room. I love the preparation in the meeting room, the practices. After my first full practice, and my first game, coming back from injury, I was in so much pain. But I texted my wife and was like, “I love this game. I’m in pain, but this is the pain I miss.” The pain from my knee injury was the pain I didn’t like. But the pain and soreness from a game or practice, that’s the pain you grow to love. And that’s what I missed, man. I love this game. To put it all in a nutshell, I love this game. That’s why I’m still going.
MMQB: You’re past what most would consider your prime. How has your game changed from five or six years ago?
GM: Obviously at that point, I was without a doubt, one of the best, if not the best, at what I did. We get older. And when you get older, you just have to adjust. You can’t do all the things you used to do. That’s why I always say, “Technique lives on forever.” Athleticism will go. You’re going to get older. But you can always have technique. And the guys that play the longest in this league, look at their technique. Look at Tom Brady; it’s all about his technique—his release is getting better and his release is nothing but him working on his technique. He works at that release over and over and over. You’ve seen older D-linemen get double-digit sacks. … I’ve always been a technician, but now I really have to hone in on my technique, and understand I can’t take the chances that I used to and everything I do has to be by the book. And most importantly, I have to take care of my body—diet, getting sleep, getting off your feet, everything that’s necessary to play this game.
MMQB: Anything you had to give up to do it that you miss?
GM: Not really, honestly. You can’t eat as freely as you used to when you were younger; you’d burn it off so easy. You eat something bad now, it’s gonna stick to you for a couple days. You get on the scale when you’re younger? You could eat 30 wings the night before, you get on the scale, you lost a pound. You eat half a wing now, you gain 10. So really just having to hone in on my diet is it.
MMQB: The Raiders have missed the playoffs in Jon Gruden’s first three years with a lot of younger guys on the defense. What do you think, as a vet, you’ve been able to give those guys?
GM: Knowledge. These guys are so talented, such gifted athletes, but like I said, technique lives on forever. So if you can take on an extremely talented athlete and teach him technique, that’s when they become great. We have a lot of good players with potential to be great players. I can give them knowledge of the game, pointing out certain things, knowing what’s coming before it happens, working on hand placement, timing, footwork. All that stuff matters when you’re taking your game to the next level. I talked to a coach today, I’m not gonna say his name, and he said, “Gerald, when you were young, you always were talented, you always had the skills, everything necessary, but when you learned to love the grind and you learned to love going through the pain, that’s when you became great.” And that’s all I’m trying to teach these guys.
MMQB: I’ve heard people say preparing to play the Ravens is like preparing to play Army or Navy—is that correct?
GM: When was the last time Army or Navy had Lamar Jackson? I’m gonna leave that right there.
MMQB: Yeah, but scheme-wise? In how different they are.
GM: You prepare for the scheme of Army and Navy. There’s nothing you can do to prepare for Lamar Jackson. He was the league MVP for a reason. I don’t care what the scheme is. He is the scheme. So the scheme is what it is. But that guy is so incredible. He’s not from Earth. He’s not human. They’re a very talented team, and I hate, hate, hate with a passion all the injuries they’re going through, especially with me coming off an injury. I despise injuries, and I hate that opening day comes up and they have all these players out. I know that sounds crazy like, But Gerald, you’re playing them. It doesn’t matter. I love to compete at the highest level, and they’re such a talented team, and I hate that all the weapons have gotten hurt, because they’re so good. So I don’t want to take away from Gus Edwards or J.K. Dobbins by saying Lamar is the scheme. But when you have a scheme like they have, and you have a person at the forefront of that scheme that you have to focus on at all points—he can be a threat in the run, in the pass, you never know when he’s gonna keep it, you never know when he’s gonna give it, and then if he does keep it, is it gonna be a boot, is it gonna be a run, is it gonna be an option? You don’t know. And then when you think you’ve got him corralled, he does all these different whatever-it-is-he-does things, and boom, he’s 60 yards downfield. That is hell to deal with. So there is no comparison to Army or Navy; this is Lamar Jackson we’re talking about.
MMQB: Is there a key to playing against him?
GM: Well, any quarterback at the NFL level, you don’t get pressure on them and they’ll kill you. But this guy, there’s a way to get pressure on him, and I’ll leave it at that. We just got to make sure we got our rush lanes down, because if he sees a seam, if what he sees downfield isn’t there, the pass he was about to make, he can get the same amount of yards with his legs. So we gotta be careful.
MMQB: Do their injuries affect your preparation at all?
GM: No. The Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson are still playing.
MMQB: Excited about being there for the first game with fans in Vegas?
GM: Man, I haven’t played football in almost two years. So any stadium I go in, I’m about to be hyped. I’m just so happy to be back on the field. But then, being able to have my first game back be for a historic franchise such as this one? You can’t beat it. In a new city, the fans travel well and last year they were deprived of being at the games, that stadium is going to be rocking. And I can’t wait.
MMQB: What do you like about like about living in Vegas?
GM: I like how everything is centrally located. You don’t have to drive far to get to anything.
MMQB: So the other stuff people love about Vegas, you’re staying away from?
GM: Yeah, I don’t see any of that.
MMQB: Coming back from that injury, do you think coming out of the tunnel on Monday, or taking your first snap, you’ll have a greater appreciation for football?
GM: Yeah, of course. I never took this game for granted, but sometimes you can get comfortable. You’re on a team. You’re used to it. This is just what I do. I play football. I’m on this team, I’m on that team, got offseason workouts, offseason meetings, go away to training camp, blah, blah, blah. This is what I do. It’s part of my life. And then it’s not there anymore. Now, it’s like, hold up, this isn’t normal. And you start thinking, I got so used to it being this way, maybe I just got comfortable with that, not having the mindset of, at any moment this can be taken from you. And I always preach that to guys. You never know when it’s your last snap. You never know when it’s your last day in a building. So make the most of every day. Smile when you come in the building. Joke with the guys. Have a great time with the guys. If you’re in meetings, be in the meetings. If you’re in practice, practice as hard as you can, because you never know. So being out of the game for as long as I was, the appreciation and love for it I thought I had, that’s at an all-time high. So every time I walk in the building now, I’m smiling. I’m so happy to be there.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’re going to be moving some stuff around in the Monday columns the next few weeks. And I’m going to experiment with putting some things I might have normally included here in the afternoon column (we’ll have good Saints stuff there later Monday).
I don’t think any of you will notice an enormous difference—and I only hope it enhances your experience at the site.
But as with everything we do, your feedback is welcome. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’ll see you in a few hours with the MAQB!
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